Tárrega entered the Madrid Conservatory in 1874, under the sponsorship of a wealthy merchant named Antonio Canesa. He had brought along with him a recently purchased guitar, made in Seville by Antonio de Torres. Its superior sonic qualities inspired him both in his playing and his view of the instrument’s compositional potential. At the conservatory, Tárrega studied composition under Emilio Arrieta, who convinced him to focus on guitar and abandon the idea of a career with the piano.
By the end of the 1870s, Tárrega was teaching the guitar (Emilio Pujol, Miguel Llobet, and Daniel Fortea were pupils) and giving regular concerts. Tárrega received much acclaim for his playing and began traveling to other areas of Spain to perform. By this time he was composing his first works for guitar, which he played, and pieces of other composers.
During the winter of 1880, Tárrega replaced his friend, Luis de Soria, in a concert in Novelda, Alicante. After the show, an important man in town asked the artist to listen to his daughter, María José Rizo, who was learning to play guitar. Soon they were engaged.
In 1881, Tárrega played in the Opera Theatre in Lyon and then the Paris Odeon, in the bicentenary of the death of Pedro Calderón de la Barca. He also played in London, but he liked neither the language nor the weather. There is a story about his visit to England. After a concert, some people say that the musician was in low spirits. “What is the matter, maestro?” they asked him. “Do you miss home? Your family, perhaps?” They advised him to capture that moment of sadness in his music. Thus he conceived the theme of one of his most memorable works, Lágrima(literally meaning teardrop). After playing in London, he came back to Novelda for his wedding. At Christmas 1882, Tárrega married María José Rizo.
To enlarge his guitar repertory and, no doubt, to make use of his considerable knowledge of keyboard music, he soon began transcribing piano works of Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn, and others. Tárrega and his wife moved to Madrid, gaining their living by teaching privately and playing concerts. Still, after an infant daughter’s death during the winter, Maria Josefa de los Angeles Tárrega Rizo, they settled permanently in Barcelona in 1885. Among his friends in Barcelona were Isaac Albéniz, Enrique Granados, Joaquín Turina, and Pablo Casals.
Francisco Tárrega and María José (María Josefa) Rizo had three more children: Paquito (Francisco), Maria Rosatia (María Rosalia) (best known as Marieta) and Concepción. On a concert tour in Valencia shortly afterward, Tárrega met a wealthy widow, Conxa Martinez, who became a valuable patron. She allowed him and his family to use a house in Barcelona, where he would write the bulk of his most famous works. Later she took him to Granada, where the guitarist conceived the theme for Recuerdos de la Alhambra, which he composed on his return and dedicated to Alfred Cottin, a Frenchman who had arranged his Paris concerts.
From the later 1880s up to 1903, Tárrega continued composing but limited his concerts to Spain. In 1900, Tárrega visited Algiers, where he heard a repetitive rhythm played on an Arabian drum. The following morning he composed Danza Mora based on that rhythm. In about 1902, he cut his fingernails and created a sound that would become typical of those guitarists associated with his school. The following year he went on tour to Italy, giving highly successful concerts in Rome, Naples, and Milan.
In January 1906, he was afflicted with paralysis on his right side, and though he would eventually return to the concert stage, he never wholly recovered. He finished his last work, Oremus, on 2 December 1909. He died in Barcelona thirteen days later, on 15 December, at the age of 57.